North Korea’s “Dear Leader” Kim Jong Il is rumored to be ailing or even dead. Given his furtive ways and the nature of his regime, denials from Pyongyang are meaningless unless he makes a public appearance in real time. Old photos presented as new only feed the rumor mill, initiated by his non-appearance at last month’s 60th anniversary celebration.
The only reason the issue of Kim’s health and eventual succession matters is the existence of North Korea’s nuclear arsenal and the anachronistic presence of U.S. troops in South Korea.
Earlier this month the U.S. government agreed to remove Pyongyang from its terrorism blacklist in return for the North’s commitment to dismantle its nuclear program. The deal was reached within the framework of the six-party talks (China, Japan, Russia, the United States, North and South Korea), whereby Pyongyang agreed to allow teams of international inspectors to visit its Yongbyon plutonium-processing facility in return for much needed foreign aid.
It is far from certain that the North Koreans are seriously committed to ending their nuclear capability. The agreement with Washington is confined to the known facilities at Yongbyon, but according to recent reports they are simultaneously working on another top-secret uranium-enrichment program based on the material provided by Abdul Qadeer Khan, Pakistan’s rogue proliferator. Playing the nuclear card has paid handsome diplomatic and economic dividends to Pyongyang over the years. Giving it up altogether would be inconsistent with North Korea’s past record. Five years ago South Korea’s then-foreign minister Yoon Young-kwan warned that North Korea “will probably never give up its nuclear option” unless it receives a speific security guarantee from the United States. Removing the North from the terrorist list is not sufficient reassurance for a regime steeped in Stalinist paranoia.
During a meeting with a South Korean delegation in August 2000, Kim Jong Il reportedly declared that he would establish diplomatic relations with the United States “as soon as tomorrow if the U.S. government removes North Korea from its blacklist.” Delisting took effect on October 11, but there has been no move to normalize relations. Diplomatic standstill may be due to Kim Jong Il’s incapacity, with his second son, Jong Cheol, reportedly developing a high-profile role in the military. At the metaphysical level of North Korea’s dialecticians, however, it is Kim Il Sung – the Great Leader, the Dear Leader’s father – who is still in charge, having been appointed “Eternal President” by the Supreme People’s Assembly in 1994, four years before his temporal death.
The United States has no better way of testing the North’s intentions than offering to sign a formal peace treaty ending the Korean War in return for a more detailed agreement that would not only terminate but also verifiably dismantle North Korea’s nuclear program. Concessions thus offered would cost the U.S. little: Washington is not contemplating a second Korean war for the sake of liberating Kim’s 23 million long-suffering subjects.
Whatever the response, the United States should plan on withdrawing all troops from the Korean peninsula and let those most affected by Pyongyang’s behavior – South Korea, Japan, China, and Russia – deal with it as they deem fit. The policy of disengagement ought to include a green light to Seoul to develop its own nuclear deterrent. The Ford Administration forced South Korea to abandon its budding nuclear weapons program in the 1970s while foolishly agreeing not to withdraw American soldiers in return. If a resurgent Kim or his successors refuse to cooperate, the process should be reversed: the granting of a free nuclear hand to Seoul should accompany the U.S. withdrawal. South Korea has a strong civilian nuclear program with many dual-use activities in place, a physical infrastructure and a technical capability that could result in a credible deterrent within months, rather than years.
The U.S. military intervention in Korea in the summer of 1950 was necessary and just. The fact of communist aggression was blatant and the implications of allowing it to succeed were ominous. For a generation after the war it was necessary to maintain U.S. forces in South Korea as neither Mao nor Brezhnev could be trusted to keep Kim Il-Sung in check. Over the past quarter-century, however, the equation has changed on all fronts. South Korea has become one of the most successful economies in the world and the third largest Asian “tiger,” with the financial and scientific potential to become a regional military power par excellence. North Korea, by contrast, has descended into the nightmare of an Oriental brand of Stalinism that combines militarism, personality cult, and abject poverty. And finally, both Russia and China are more interested in the economic benefits of trading with the South than in the outdated legacy of past links with the North.
Removing the American umbrella from South Korea would be beneficial to both sides. The United States would be disengaged from a spot where the dangers and costs of continued military presence exceed any possible benefits. “Without any connection to the Cold War that ended over a decade ago, and absent a global hegemonic struggle, Korea is relatively unimportant to the United States from a military and strategic standpoint,” regular Chronicles contributor Doug Bandow wrote in Tripwire: Korea and U.S. Foreign Policy in a Changed World. As South Korea acknowledges in its own defense reports, for years it chose to focus on economic development at the expense of military strength, which it could do, secure in the protection by the United States.
American withdrawal would prompt South Korea finally to become a mature, self-reliant regional power responsible for its own protection, as befits one of the most highly developed industrial economies in the world. South Koreans should be told that America has no national interest in retaining troops in Korea or in continuing to protect Seoul. Old habits may die hard, but the 55-year habit of garrisoning the 38th parallel needs to be kicked because it is dangerous, expensive, and unnecessary.
To the argument that South Korea’s military is not strong enough to withstand the threat from the North, the answer is clear: only by removing our tripwire can America finally force South Korea to upgrade its military and to make its people assume the full economic and political burden of defending their own country. For exactly the same reason American troops should be removed from Japan and Germany. A strategic anachronism five decades old would thus be finally ended.
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